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The Buzzcocks Interview

by Alexander Laurence

Formed in Manchester in 1975, the Buzzcocks were one of the most influential bands to emerge in the initial wave of punk rock. Over the years, their powerful punk-pop has proven enormously influential, with echoes of their music being apparent in everyone from Hüsker Dü to Nirvana. Shortly after their formation, Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto booked a local club, the Lesser Free Trade Hall, with the intent of persuading the Sex Pistols to play in Manchester. At the Pistols show, Shelley and Devoto met Steve Diggle, who joined the Buzzcocks as their bassist, and the group found their drummer John Maher through an advertisement in Melody Maker. Within a few months, the band played their first concert, opening for the second Sex Pistols show at the Lesser Free Trade Hall in July of 1976.

At the end of 1976, the group joined the Sex Pistols on their Anarchy Tour. After the tour was completed, The Buzzcocks released the first do-it-yourself, independent record of the punk era. The Buzzcocks released several singles that charted in the Top 40. The band released the great albums Another Music in a Different Kitchen (1977) and Love Bites (1978). Later, A Different Kind of Tension (1979) displayed some signs of wear and tear. They embarked on their first American tour in that year, which coincided withthe singles collection, Singles Going Steady (1979), was released in America. They were at the height of their popularity. Their record company was bought out and they took a year off. Losing the momentum along the way, The Buzzcocks broke up in 1981.

During the 1980s there was many rumors that they would reform. In 1989, the group did and toured the United States. The following year, John Maher left the band and former Smiths drummer Mike Joyce joined the band on tour. By 1990, the reunion had become permanent; after Joyce's brief tenure with the band, the final lineup of the reunited Buzzcocks featured Shelley, Diggle, bassist Tony Barber, and drummer Phil Barker. The new version of the band released their first album with the new lineup, Trade Test Transmissions (1993). After its release, the band toured frequently. The Buzzcocks released more albums in the following years: All Set (1996), Modern (1999). Recently, they have come out with their most raw album yet: entitled just Buzzcocks (2003). This is the band playing at their peak, twenty years later.

I spoke to bassist, Tony Barber and guitarist/singer, Steve Diggle.


AL: Have you been in the band for a long time?

Tony: Twelve years. Every record in the 1990s except the first single. Me and Phil Barker have been in the band since 1992. We have been on the last four studio albums. We have been on all the live albums. Who knows what else?

AL: People seem to like the new album. When did you start recording it?

Tony: We started doing the demos for four months. We actually started recording in January 2002. Me and Steve got together. Steve had some songs. We went through a pile of tapes and a bunch of songs, and went through them all. We sat down and made demos for a while.

AL: How did you decide what songs to choose?

Tony: They chose themselves really. After I did some demos with Steve, I went over to Pete's house, and helped with his demos. After a while we got a bunch of songs together and recorded them. We recorded thirteen songs at first. Then we decided that about eight were good. We knew what kind of record we wanted to make. We came back four months later and recorded some more songs. Out of the two sessions we had the album. There is a bunch of stuff left over. We just put out a 45 limited edition vinyl only. There are a lot of collectors in Britain. We just sold the last one the other night. It's not really a single. We just wanted to do this additional single with this independent label, Damaged Goods.

AL: You did a few songs by Pete Shelley and Howard Devoto?

Steve: What happened was when we started writing stuff for this album, Pete and Howard got back together and started writing. They had no intention of getting back together and doing a record. They wrote that track "Stars." That was written for the new Buzzcocks record. But in between the time they wrote it and our album coming out, they continued writing, and made the Buzzkunst record. It's on there too. We are not doing a cover. It was written for the Buzzcocks record. But their record came out first.

AL: And the song "Lester Sands?"

Steve: That's an old song. That's a song we did on the first demos when we first got together in 1976. It's never come out as an official release, so we put it on the new album twenty-six years later.

AL: What did you think of the Buzzkunst record?

Steve: I thought it was shit. It's not my bag really.

AL: Howard hasn't done any music in a while.

Steve: You have to get a persepctive. He did seven gigs with us and left twenty six years ago. He hasn't been around since the first record, Spiral Scratch.

Tony: We have done more gigs than that this week!

Steve: People keep asking: "Where is he?" He left a long time ago. The lineup is what it is now. We have been playing for more than ten years, and that's longer than Devoto was ever in the band. He did do this song. It causes confusion. People think he has joined again. He'll never be back. He doesn't tour and there's no place for him. He did four albums as Magazine. I see him as being more Magazine than Buzzcocks.

AL: Does Howard show up to some of your gigs?

Steve: He doesn't even go out. There's eight great songs on the new album. It's a great band as it is. He's ancient history.

Tony: If the Buzzcocks broke up after Spiral Scratch, and not gone on and done fifteen hit singles and been on Top of The Pops a load of times, I don't think that people would be talking about Howard Devoto to be honest. If you are talking about Buzzcocks, it's like saying Garth played a big part in the Buzzcocks. He played on one single like Howard Devoto.

AL: Part of the reason there's an interest in Devoto, as there is in Joy Division, is because of this movie Twenty Hour Party People. What did you think of that?

Steve: Again, that starts with a clip of the Sex Pistols, a clip of the Buzzcocks, and shows you that first Free Trade audience. Then it leaps about five years into the 1980s. The bands they feature are Happy Mondays which have fuck all to do with punk music. That was 1980s dance scene. The Hacienda wasn't built till 1980. Punk started in Manchester in 1976. That was the scene with Tony Wilson. It's sort of a misnomer: it's not really out of punk rock. There was five years of small clubs and people writing fanzines in toilets. There should be a film about that.

Tony: If you want to do a film about the Manchester punk scene it would have to start in 1975, surely.

Steve: Yeah. They wouldn't let you in clubs in the beginning. There was one club that let punks in. It's a good film. It's funny. It's not really a punk rock film.

AL: Did you play with Joy Division?

Steve: They supported us in the early days. Ian Curtis died after the tour we did with them. He hung himself two days after the tour. They were playing small clubs at that point. We had moved to the theaters. We were on the charts and played Top of The Pops. We took them along on tour. Joy Division was still unknown. There was a vibe about them. We had a party after the last show in Edinburgh. Ian said to me: "I have this problem. I met this girl in Paris and I am married." To anyone in a band, being twenty two years old, that didn't seem that problematic. It was a moral dilemma. He was his own man. You didn't think much of it. Two days later I was at a club and I found out that he had hung himself. I thought that was weird. I was with him two days earlier. He was telling me that story of being traumatized.

AL: What where the first shows like in America?

Steve: We waited for about two years. We had been invited over a few times. We came over with Gang of Four because they had the same agency as us. It was a sold out tour. We played some medium sized venues that held a thousand people. Some palces were small clubs. Then we played the last show at the Santa Monica Civic for five thousand people. That was a pleasant surprise. I remember seeing that Elvis Costello was playing the Whiskey. We were playing down the road and we sold out the Santa Monica Civic. That was 1978. That was our first American tour. People said that they were waiting for us two years.

AL: You both live in London?

Tony: I live in Williamsburg, but I still have a house in London. I am back and forth.

Steve: I have lived there for eleven or twelve years. I hate London. My accent has changed.

Tony: I live near Walthamstow. It's about four miles from Steve. He's more Northwest.

Steve: I am three stops from Camden Town.

AL: Oh yeah. Everyone goes there.

Tony: That's the Williamsburg of London: Camden Road.

AL: Is there much to do in Manchester anymore? Do you ever go back there?

Steve: It's the center really. It's not that big. It's easy to get around. You can go around for drinks. The rest is suburbia after that.

Tony: It's like London. There's a center and there's surrounding villages and towns. It's all part of the whole thing. No one from London lives on Charing Cross Road. People used to squat in Russell Square in the early 1980s.

AL: What was it like playing the Inland Invasion last year? There were a lot of new American punk bands who were inspired by especially The Buzzcoxks, since they also combine melodies with punk music.

Steve: It was a good lineup. It was a good day for people who like that kind of music. Many people want to see The Sex Pistols and The Buzzcocks. I spoke to someone from The Offspring. They covered "Autonomy" as well. They must be inspired by The Buzzcocks. I think of Blink 182 but I didn't run into them. The generation we come from which includes The Sex Pistols, The Clash, and The Buzzcocks, there is something solid. You can tell the difference. It's more unique. When we started, we found our own identity by being ourselves and doing what we wanted to do. We were working in the dark. Whereas, some of these bands see what went on and synthesize things and go "We should be like that."

Tony: This kid was telling me the other day "Those other bands just sing about their girlfriend." I knew exactly what he meant. It's too stylized.

Steve: The way they jump about, it's like they don't have no feeling or have anything to do with music. It is like it is choreographed. Good luck to them.

AL: Were there any specific bands you were inspired by at the beginning?

Steve: Some Bowie and some Bolan. When we started we just made the music on the spot. We never started copying someone's record. We weren't the kind of players who could figure out the chords and play them. It was easier to write your own tunes. You can't hear the influences. The Ramones was an influence. When we started, The Ramones first record had come out. We had copies of that. You can hear the similarities between The Buzzcocks and The Ramones in terms of the distorted guitars. It wasn't a conscious thing. Me and Pete grew up with The Beatles as well. He liked a tune. I liked a tune as well. That's there.

AL: Who came up with the one note guitar solo?

Steve: Pete did that in rehearsal one time. We were playing "Boredom" and he did that. We just fell about laughing. It's very distinctive.

AL: Did you like any other bands from Manchester?

Steve: I like The Smiths as well. They took a cue from The Buzzcocks. They have jangly guitars instead of distorted guitars. All the Manchester bands have a character about them. The Stone Roses and The Smiths and all that. Even if you don't like them, they have a certain original sound.

AL: What did you think of Oasis?

Steve: I thought that Oasis was good when they first started. There was nothing happening at the time. They came out at the right time.

AL: What sort of songs do you play on this tour?

Tony: It changes from tour to tour. If you keep going out on the road and do the same set all the time, it's like being a fucking cabaret band. We always make our set reflect what our new album is about. The last tour and the last album was more eclectic and experimental sounding. We were doing songs like "Moving Away From The Pulse Beat," "Why Can't I Touch It?" and "ESP." We were doing the weirder stuff and some synths. This new album is just twelve songs and it's thirty-five minutes. That is what the set is like. It's more stylized to that album. There are a lot of two minute songs.

AL: Many people like this new album because it's so fast and has a lot of energy. Another band from that time, Wire, have just released a new album featuring fast and shouted singing. Have you ever played with them?

Steve: I don't think we have. We were supposed to do this tour recently.

Tony: For the last five years, this American promoter keeps asking us to do this tour. He reckons it's going to be Devo, Buzzcocks, Wire, Pere Ubu, and somebody else. It's supposed to be this big tour. It's been in the cards for years.

AL: Is that going to happen?

Steve: I don't know. But in a way I am glad it hasn't happened. This tour has been great. We are joining Pearl Jam on the east coast.

AL: You are playing with Pearl Jam at Madison Square Garden on July 8th. What is that going to be like?

Steve: People wonder if the Pearl Jam audience will get into The Buzzcocks. Eddie Vedder is a big Buzzcocks fan. He used to come to see Buzzcocks before he was in Pearl Jam. If his fans like what he likes, I guess that they might like The Buzzcocks.

AL: How many shows are you playing with Pearl Jam?

Tony: I think it's thirteen shows. It came out of the blue. We were getting ready to put out our record. We got a call from our agent saying that Pearl Jam had been in touch. They requested us to be special guests on their tour. Someone asked us today: "Did Pearl Jam ask you, or did you ask them." Like as if we phoned them.

AL: What are some of the other previous members of the Buzzcocks doing like John Maher?

Steve: John is doing dragster racing. Steve Garvey is hanging about in Philadelphia. He has got a few kids and all that. He's getting on with his life. He doesn't do music anymore.

AL: What about Garth?

Steve: We are still looking for him. I don't know what happened. He's disappeared.

AL: Do these guys ever show up to gigs?

Tony: Steve will be there at the Philly show or in New York.

AL: Are there any new groups that you played with that you thought were good?

Steve: There was a girl group in Australia called The Spazzies.

AL: Are you going to do another album soon?

Tony: I think the plan was to tour for the rest of the year. Take a few months off. We might start another record early next year. We haven't done a record the next year in the past twelve years. It's a challenge to do another record right away. I am getting fed up with waiting three years to put out a record. The record industry is geared up nowadays for putting out a record and touring for a year or two. You leave it all and then you let it all go down and then you let it build back up again. But on this tour, we are doing like one hundred and fifty shows and we are rocking. We could easily go back in and do another album. It would only take us two weeks to record another album.

Website: www.buzzcocks.com




--Alexander Laurence

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